Less about urban planning and more about the forgotten interstitial margins created by architecture, this article links scattered reports about fishing in basements beneath New York City with the cisterns of Istanbul, the home of Global Site Plans’ principal, Renée van Staveren.
Istanbul is home to several hundred ancient cisterns that, when built during the Byzantine era, carried water from the Pontic mountains via aqueducts to underground chambers beneath the city. The Istanbul chambers hold a surprisingly thriving population of underground cave fish. Originally imported to act as a filtration system by eating bits of organic matter and pollutants and as a warning system during sieges of the city. If the fish suddenly died residents knew the water source was tainted. The cisterns were re-discovered by a Dutch traveler in 1545 after watching citizens obtain water and catch fish simply by lowering buckets through their basement floors.
In New York City, there is a paved-over marshland, which urban planners redirected surface rivers underground just like the water streaming beneath Istanbul. These streams occasionally can be reached by descending into the ancient cellars and basements of the city’s buildings. A recent letter to the New York Times named a now demolished hardware on 53rd and Second Avenue as a location of a reputed basement fishing excursion. Many doubt the unverified reports and question how the fish arrived in the stream or whether there are still viable populations beneath the city.
While it is unlikely there is a secret sect of anglers plying the subterranean rivers of New York City for eyeless carp, it is still possible. However improbable is seems, examples from Istanbul and other locales suggest that populations of hardy cave adapted fish can thrive underground. For now, murky myths and unsubstantiated stories of streams beneath hardware stores fuel the legend.
From alligators in the sewers to organized crime in the Paris catacombs, what other architectural and infrastructural mysteries may be based on facts?